NEW YORK — It ain’t getting any easier.

Fashion marketers are facing a seismic shift in the psychographic profile of their female customers — one that’s posing a steeper challenge to an already rocky business. It’s the emergence of a more complex fashion consumer who expresses a variety of conflicting attitudes and opposing behaviors, and thus is harder to please.

And she’s only surfaced in the past six months, according to NPD Group research disclosed exclusively to WWD. In a nod to the trend, NPD has dubbed today’s shopping environment the Age of Contradictions. Indeed, in the short time since last holiday, women and teens ages 13 and older have increasingly described themselves with conflicting characteristics, in place of the singular traits they had chosen before.

The new traits include: adventurous yet cautious; practical yet indulgent; confident yet seeking acceptance; feminine yet corporate; outdoorsy yet luxurious; single yet maternal; mature yet youthful; educated yet thirsty for knowledge, and career-oriented yet domesticated. Previously, women had portrayed themselves in a more singular fashion; as either adventurous or cautious, practical or indulgent, for example.

“This is a dramatic, fast change in the way women are seeing themselves,” noted Marshal Cohen, co-president of Port Washington-based NPDFashionworld. “This is the first time I’ve seen this complexity in the 18 months we’ve been asking female consumers to describe themselves. Interestingly, only women expressed these seeming contradictions,” Cohen continued. “Perhaps men are less willing to acknowledge and respond to change.”

Contributing to the emergence of the psychographic changes among females, Cohen said, are:

Emotional and psychological fallout from 9/11, which has spurred changes in their mind-sets and values.

Growing access to information through the Internet and increasingly popular adult education pursuits.

Greater willingness on the part of women to share their emotions and thoughts.

“The emergence of contradictory traits sends up a very clear signal the apparel business needs to rethink how it markets to consumers,” Cohen advised. “What may have worked in a marketing campaign six months ago may not work today. But I’ll bet a lot of brands don’t know their customer is changing.”Indeed, a spot check with a handful of brands — Liz Claiborne, A|X Armani Exchange and Diesel — revealednone of them believe the fundamental psychographic profiles of their customers has changed in the past year and a half.

“I don’t know if the relevant psychographic traits of the Liz Claiborne customer have changed in the past 18 months — I don’t think so,” offered Trudy Sullivan, an executive vice president of Liz Claiborne Inc., whose responsibilities include leading the company’s portfolio of Liz Claiborne labels. The Liz Claiborne brand’s target, Sullivan said, is a “warm, genuine, confident, 35- to 55-year-old woman who’s happy with her life. She prefers stylish, flattering, feminine clothes.” Sullivan acknowledged, however, that “the Liz woman is grounded, but 9/11 probably prompted her to hold on even harder to the things she holds dear.”

Nonetheless, the spring ad campaign for the Liz Claiborne brand reflects a closer examination of its customers’ values and marks what Sullivan termed “a big departure” from a focus on product to one on situations in their lives — with family, friends and in various activities. “The key word is real, rather than aspirational,” Sullivan said of the current campaign’s imagery and tag line: “Live for the moments.”

A somewhat similar approach, emphasizing authenticity — though in an ironic voice — is being used by a brand with a younger, edgier customer: Diesel. It’s an attempt to respond to changes Diesel has discovered in the past five or six years, rather than months, explained Maurizio Marchioni, vice president of marketing at Diesel USA, whose primary target is the 18- to 34-year-old. “People don’t buy apparel so much anymore out of need,” Marchioni observed. “They buy because of a desire to have something they like. That’s why establishing an emotional connection between consumers and a brand has become important.”

In order to communicate a brand’s meaning with intelligence, Marchioni maintained, it’s best to root marketing images in reality rather than in fantasies or aspirations. “We’ve introduced intelligent irony in Diesel advertising and we refrain from explaining everything in our ads,” he pointed out. “This suggests respect for the customer and creates curiosity.”The profile of the typical A|X Armani Exchange customer is also sophisticated, but that’s nothing new, according to a company spokesman. “We think the behavior of the A|X girl [an 18- to 34-year-old target] has not changed significantly over the past 18 months,” the spokesman stated in an e-mail interview. “She’s aware of what’s going on in the world, but remains socially active and optimistic. Our customer may be indulgent and attracted to the designer name associated with the brand, while [also] being very practical and responsive to the more affordable prices Armani Exchange offers.”

As for the primary A|X customer, the spokesman said she’s ambitious, confident, independent, likes the nightlife and has a style that reflects this spirit. She’s aware of trends, but enjoys creating her own look, mixing vintage, designer numbers and streetwear. She sees A|X as a brand for key seasonal pieces, like a cropped cargo pant.

While the typical A|X customer ranges from 18 to 34 years old, the brand has found its best customers are in the 21- to 28-year-old set. Thus, the brand’s marketing effort is aimed at those consumers and those with similar attitudes and lifestyles.

In fact, research on apparel spending conducted by RoperASW last September and NPD Group in the first quarter identified 18- to 29-year-olds and 18- to 34-year-olds, respectively, as the age groups spending the most on fashion or having plans to do so. Among 18- to 29-year-olds surveyed by RoperASW, 34 percent said they planned to spend more on apparel, compared with September 2001. That response was 16 percentage points higher than the 18 percent of the broader sample, ages 18 and older, who participated in the telephone poll. And the consumers, ages 18 to 34, canvassed by NPD Group accounted for 30.1 percent of the $82.7 billion spent on apparel between September 2002 and February 2003, or $24.9 billion, and represented the largest share of purchasing by age group.

By comparison, NPD found people ages 35 to 54 represented 27.4 percent of apparel spending in the September to February period, or $22.7 billion, and 13- to 17-year-olds accounted for 11.9 percent, or $9.8 billion.“As fashion has felt growing resistance from more mature customers, it has increasingly shifted its focus to a younger consumer — as well it should,” said Paco Underhill, managing director of consultant Envirosell. “The pool of money controlled by those 45 and older is growing larger each year. But those consumers are growing wiser and many of them could probably live the rest of their lives without buying any apparel they don’t need.”

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